Learning resource aggregators can give open educational resources a new lease of life

Open educational resources are free at point of use but cost in production, collation, and distribution. David Kernohan investigates a Kortext project to make OERs more widely accessible

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

With startling increases in publisher etextbook prices – and no regulatory action in sight – many providers are looking to other forms of learning resources.

Open educational resources (OER) have been around since the early years of this millennium. The term is a broad one, as we’ll get into, but at this stage hang on to the idea of it being zero cost stuff to support learning.

Recent trends have seen commercial learning content aggregators including some OER resources on their platforms – putting a price (or even just a need to sign in to a platform) on content which is otherwise free to use. There are a number of responses to that from various parts of the OER world. Some are morally affronted that a resource someone has chosen to make available for free has been monetised, others are just perplexed that something they can get online without cost can also be sold.

Both these are valid responses, relating as they do to a system of value that is still emerging. But both are worthy of further consideration.

OER roots

At the critical bleeding edge of OER, citing David Wiley is no longer fashionable. He was a leading light of the movement back in the day – and though he is in no sense where the conversation is now it is worth going back to his definitions to illuminate this conversation. Wiley talks about the “five Rs” of openness as follows:

  • Retain – the right to make, own, and control copies of the content
  • Reuse – the right to use the content in a wide range of ways (eg in a class, in a study group, on a website, in a video)
  • Revise – the right to adapt, adjust, modify, or alter the content itself (eg translate the content into another language)
  • Remix – the right to combine the original or revised content with other open content to create something new (eg incorporate the content into a mashup)
  • Redistribute – the right to share copies of the original content, your revisions, or your remixes with others (eg give a copy of the content to a friend)

A common distinguishing feature of an OER is an open licence – most commonly something like a Creative Commons licence that explicitly allows for a person to have these “five R” rights. As an example, Openstax is a US-based publisher of etextbooks that releases resources under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 licence – meaning that anyone can retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute their stuff as long as they note the material comes from Openstax.

A publisher is actually a fairly curious example of this practice – most people would think about a provider releasing OER material (such as – for example – the University of Edinburgh, the Open University, or MIT), and there are many individual academics who share their resources openly.

If you look through some of these you will note that very few of these resources are traditional textbooks – you get videos, slides, articles, and anything else that you can imagine that could be used for learning. Some of these resources are aimed at staff who teach – who can reuse, revise, and remix them for use with their students – others at students (or, more accurately, learners) directly.

Open and free

Thinking about price with OER is tricky, because we need to split up the idea of sticker price from the idea of cost. The sticker price (the price to the end user) is always “free”, but there are clearly costs associated with developing (creating, collating, quality assuring, hosting, promoting, revising) OER. Covering these costs has been the primary challenge in developing and sharing OER – charitable foundations, government grants, institutional support, and (less sustainably) voluntary work have all played a part.

Even if you see creating learning materials as a pleasant activity – or as work that would be done anyway – revising, collating, tagging, and managing learning materials is a job and deserves to be paid. Authors – of course – deserve to be paid (something that I note traditional publishing models do not do reliably or well).

This is where commercial companies come in. Kortext, for example, didn’t just hoover up a load of OpenStax resources into their platform – the company entered into a partnership allowing OpenStax to pay people who create these resources. So the platform got a range of attractive, usable, and by all accounts popular free-at-the-point-of use learning resources – and the publisher got some cash to make more.

The arguments against

An aggregator platform obviously gets a benefit from offering free resources, or they wouldn’t do it. Kortext does it because it gets providers to try out their platform, which would hopefully lead to the use of paid resources on the same platform in future. Students do like the consistent and reliable presentation of learning materials, staff like the ability to understand who is accessing what and when.

The downside is that the five R freedoms are not directly available via the platform. If you’re trying to resource a course having already spent your budget, this might not matter to you – if you are looking to get under the hood with these materials (revise, remix, retain…) then you’d need to be interfacing directly with the copies provided by the publisher.

Though the ideological underpinning of OER is to support the benefits that these freedoms can bring to learning, the actuality of OER is funded by the provision of free resources. Not everyone needs to, wants to, or is able to rewrite a textbook chapter – but the movement is keen to support those that do. So a fair number of OER advocates see the “sticker price” argument as a distraction or a necessary evil.

People get interested in OER as a space away from the increasing commercialisation (and cost) of learning resources, and as a means to support better teaching and better learning. As such, there are some who react strongly against the involvement of commercial companies – and from this perspective such a reaction is entirely understandable.

But what commercial platforms can unlock is mass adoption of high quality open resources – something that benefits students and providers. It is difficult to argue for the whole-scale rewiring of a university to support the use of a wide range of open resources. As an individual, it is far easier just to choose an open option on a platform a provider may already be using. This benefits the student (and library budgets!) by reducing costs directly, while avoiding the costs involved in moving to (or, indeed, creating) a new way of working.

Kortext and Jisc recently worked together to provide access to 10,000 OER and other free textbooks to further education colleges and another 700 will arrive in May as part of an ongoing expansion. These are all available without cost; colleges simply need to sign into the service to access and use the materials.

The thing to remember here is that the resources were there – and available to use – a long time before the agreement was even considered. What the agreement did was to make the materials discoverable, easy to use, and available for students to access via a single consistent platform. The shift to OER becomes realistically available to time-pressed staff, to the benefit of students and colleges.

There’s nothing – other than inertia and a lack of specific knowledge – to stop any university in moving to an entirely OER model. It would need substantial investment in the creation and adaptation of content and the technical underpinnings of making it available to students seamlessly – but the possibility is there. For the rest of the sector, cutting textbook costs via OER on existing platforms is a simple and usable step towards improving access to resources.

This article is published in association with Kortext.

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